Tuesday, August 09, 2011
Walking around London today was a weird experience, with a subdued, intangibly jittery and apprehensive atmosphere. On the surface, everything felt normal, but underneath, you felt that tension could rear its head at any moment. It brought to mind the days straight after the 7/7 bombings. It seems incredible that Hackney, the borough I grew up in, and the other areas of East London in which I’ve lived (including Tottenham), are in the news around the world.
Two articles in particular on the rioting have been especially illuminating. This one in Time highlights just how different the London 2011 riots are to those which took place in Paris in 2005. The riots in Paris took place in the banlieues, away from the mostly affluent inner city residents. The areas hit in London, by contrast, are not only ethnically heterogeneous but also contain poor and wealthy living virtually cheek-by-jowl, which has meant that the riots have, in the words of the article, been “surging right up to the doors of the comfortable, middle and upper-middle class homes” (such as happened in Notting Hill). This is contrasted to Paris, where many of the banlieues where the riots took place are geographically remote from the rest of the city, both physically (exacerbated by the Boulevard Périphérique motorway) and mentally, with many residents complaining of their disenfranchised alienation from wider French society.
What’s also disturbing too in that article is the mention of how the new Sarkozy government brought in money, social programs and better transport links to the blighted areas in Paris subsequently. In recession-hit Britain in 2011, by contrast, the focus on the Government has been on cuts to benefits and services. While many of the rioters have undoubtedly been mindless idiots keen to join in with the carnage, there is nonetheless an acknowledgement here in this revealing article in The Guardian that cuts in services may also have played a part, particularly in this interview with a local on the Pembury estate in Hackney:
"They just want to be heard," said a young black woman. "This is the only way some people have to communicate. "Were cuts in services a factor? "Course they are. They cut our youth project by 75%. We used to work with gangs, run a workshop that brought police and young people together. Gone.”
Of course, that still doesn’t excuse the mindless nature of the rioters, particularly when they have targeted local businesses, people, cars and buildings. These are the same kind of people who make taking buses in London such a misery much of the time. I never felt the urge to join in looting when I was the age of many of the rioters, and neither do many ordinary working people. It’s quite obvious that many of the opportunists who have joined in with the riots have brazenly took their chance to loot and arson local stores full of DVDs/TVs/trainers rather than display any interest in serious objection to Government policy or human rights (hence the absence of the anarchist/anti-globalisation brigade in these riots, many of whom are in any case from an educated, white, middle-class milieu rather than working-class teenagers from the estates). It’s true, too, that there are many different factors in play – background, culture - that have led to the mindset of those that have took part as opposed to those who haven’t, and which would lead to another article entirely.
In the wider context, though, at the same time as the cuts, we are seeing footballers and bankers in the UK paid obscene amounts of wealth, while corporations such as Barclays have been singled out by UK Uncut – quite rightly - for their tax avoidance. Meanwhile, rents have gone up at the same time as wages have stagnated, jobs have been lost and benefits have been cut, leading to serious financial difficulty and desperation for many. So while the rioters are mindless thugs, the events haven’t taken place in a sociological vacuum, even if another article in The Guardian points out that the rioters are from a diverse range of ethnicities.
If Cameron and Osbourne are serious about tackling the stagnating economy and putting some money back into the community, there is no choice but to raise taxes on the wealthy and on companies, while imposing financial regulation on the Square Mile and imposing limits on ridiculous bonus culture in the City by law. On top of that, rent controls - coupled with a genuine desire to protect individual businesses (as Paris has done to some extent) in the face of greedy landlords and the onslaught of homogenous chain stores which seem to blight many UK high streets so much - would actually endear me to the current Government. But I would be surprised if it ever happens. These changes might not fully avert another riot in the future, and whatever happens the Government’s future policy certainly doesn’t justify the looting, arson and terrorising of local communities, now or in the future. But the changes could lead to a more egalitarian society, in which people feel less disenfranchised and less prone to mindlessly smash up everything in their sight.